Thursday, 24 February 2011

Oscars 2011

With Oscar night falling at the end of this week, it's time to go through the runners and riders I've seen this past year to pick out who I reckon is going to win and, much more importantly, who I think should win. For reference the 10 films in the running for Best Picture are as follows ...
  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King's Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter's Bone
Of these, those underlined are the ones that I've actually seen. 70% isn't bad (and is actually the same fraction as last year), and 2 of the 3 that I'm missing I wasn't in a big rush to see anyway (Black Swan and 127 Hours). They'll (probably) make it to our DVD list one day, but I'm not mad keen on watching either the psychological deterioration of a ballerina, or the obligated self-amputation of an extreme sports fan. Consequently, I'm (mis)judging them as non-starters for the winner's podium. While the remaining unseen title, The Fighter, does sound worth seeing (though I write as an Amy Adams fan), it hasn't been talked of in tones that make me think it's a likely winner. So my first prediction is that the winner will (and should) be drawn from the films that I've actually seen.

Regarding these films then, what's the story? First of all, I really liked every one of them - there really wasn't a duffer in sight. So, again like last year, there aren't any that I'd actively be disappointed to see win - no Titanics, no Bravehearts and certainly no Gladiators. But at the same time, I think are more deserving of victory than others. Anyway, in alphabetical order ...

Though nicely brain-twisting, Inception probably doesn't merit the winning slot. It creates a uniquely imaginative world based around the malleability of dreams, and brilliantly follows through on the logic of this world, but the bottom line is that it isn't really as emotionally grabbing as it thinks it is, and the "dream-physics" that it posits have nothing to do with real dreams. So though an enjoyable and engaging ride, no cigar.

The Kids Are All Right, by contrast, is a lot more emotionally (and politically) satisfying, dealing as it does with down-to-Earth family relationships, albeit with the spin of a lesbian nuclear family. By normalising what to many people is still something of a taboo, this central twist gives it a bit of an edge, one that may help it swing Academy voters. But as it otherwise presents a fairly run-of-the-mill parent/child/sperm donor plotline, I'm not sure that it's ambitious enough. I'd be very happy to see it win though. [Original comments]

The ubiquitous The King's Speech is the one that's doing all the running in the UK. It's certainly been raking in the cash at our local arts cinema off the back of its mass appeal (largely with a particular, grey-haired demographic). Again, I really enjoyed it, and it combines a tale of royalty with triumph over adversity, World War 2 and Winston Churchill - a fairly winning combination. But I just prefer some of the other films, and the republican within me has steeled me against its charms. That, and I'm not entirely happy with its rather fast and loose treatment of history (plus: I can't square Helena Bonham Carter, who I've always really liked, with the Queen Mother).

I originally found it hard to comprehend why anyone thought a film about the origins of facebook was a good idea, let along the director David Fincher. But I was very pleasantly surprised at just how well what should, by rights, be a dull dot-com tale was brought to life on the screen. Fincher and his screenwriter Sorkin have definitely pulled something of a blinder with this one, and have made a enjoyably well-paced drama out of some fairly hard-to-like characters and, well, geekery. The Social Network seemed a surefire winner a few months back, but its star seems to have fallen as rivals have been released. I wouldn't complain if it were to win, but my money's moved elsewhere. [Original comments]

It's difficult to count the number of ways in which I love Toy Story 3. Of all the films in the running, this is probably the only one for which I have unequivocal love. Thanks to its earlier, peerless instalments, the bar was set high, but Toy Story 3 totally cleared it. Though fantastical, it invests its central, non-human characters with levels of pathos, as well as humour, that other films just can't touch. And the imagination and inventiveness that have gone into it make it a pretty infectious joy to watch. As a threequel, its placement in the starting line-up is reminiscent of that given to Return of the King, which effectively stood in for all three films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it's also more plausibly in the running for Best Animated Feature, so though I'd be delighted if it won Best Picture, I'm pretty sure that it won't (though if it doesn't win in the animated category there is no justice!). More generally, I'm also a little against the idea of an animated fantasy winning Best Picture - but that's probably just cinema-as-an-art snobbery. [Original comments]

The last time that the Coen Brothers tried their hand in the remake department, they uncharacteristically produced a rather lame mess (whose sole redeeming feature was a nice line in Southern Gothic). The contrast with their most recent film, True Grit, couldn't be greater - this time around they're firing on all cylinders (or perhaps barrels?). The result is a hugely enjoyable, and darkly humorous, western yarn, solidly grounded by the performances of Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose chalk-and-cheese relationship in the film lightens what's an otherwise gritty western. Given that it's both a remake and a western, I was surprised at just how much I liked this. Whether its likely to be a winner is more difficult to say - being a remake probably counts against it, for instance. But, again, I'd be really pleased to see it make off with the statue.

Last, and pretty far from least, is probably the most low-key of the runners, Winter's Bone. In some respects it, too, can be viewed as a western, albeit a modern-day one in which the impoverished midwest stands in for the wild west, and where the outlaws are more interested in methamphetamine than holding up stagecoaches. Like True Grit it also rests on excellent central performances, here Jennifer Lawrence and a rather scary John Hawkes. But it avoids the dark humour of its rival film with a plotline that has more than a passing resemblance to Heart of Darkness, as Lawrence's character seeks her estranged father among rural drug families. Again (I'm sounding like a broken record ...), I really enjoyed this film, and would be pleased were it to win. Certainly, as a more "serious" film, I think it has a good chance, but it's perhaps from a little too far outside of Hollywood to charm Academy voters.

Anyhow, overall I'd rank the films as follows in terms of "who I'd like to win" ...
1=The Kids Are All Right
1=Toy Story 3
1=True Grit
1=Winter's Bone
5The Social Network
6The King's Speech

I can't really decide among my top four, so there's no 2nd, 3rd or 4th places, but the remaining three films are slightly easier to separate. It feels a bit mean to place Inception last, but the field is strong this year, even if I can't really pick out one film that's head and shoulders above the rest. I will be (ever-so-slightly) disappointed if the winner isn't in drawn from the ranks of my top four, but I won't be seriously put out by any winner this year. There's just nothing even faintly approaching the cringingly awful Gladiator for me to get all indignant about.

Anyway, all will be revealed this coming Sunday. Can't say I'll be staying up for the ceremony, but I'll be interested to see which way the Academy bends when confronted with such a strong field. Will it be towards a cinema staple like a western? A fast-talking up-to-the-minute dissection of the dot-com era? A crowd-pleasing animation? Stirring but royal-loving and revisionist history? Or a warm, diversity-embracing family drama?


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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Virtual dawn

Back to the Wasteland ...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Tales from a favourite city

Not long before I moved to England and started at the University of Warwick, I spent about a week in San Francisco. It was at the end of a spell working in Los Angeles, and I was taken there (and back!) by one of my best friends. As my experience of Californian cities up to that point was largely the sprawling mess that is LA, I had a great time (though I will always love LA). Nestled around the Bay, SF was much more clearly a city to my mind, with a well-defined centre, and an easy-going ambience that largely eluded its southerly sister. Having enjoyed my visit so much, and facing down the barrel of a dismal English winter, I was overjoyed when a new drama set in SF started on TV. As well as reminding me of somewhere dear to my heart, Tales of the City pleasingly warmed the cockles of my liberal heart, with its humane stories of (usually) nice people who just so happened to be diverse in the sexual preferences department.

So, flash forward to the present day, I was rather pleased to pull Armistead Maupin's latest installment in his long-running series out of my Christmas stocking. But would Mary Ann in Autumn be able to stand up to the rose-tinted nostalgia I have for the now-distant TV series?

Set shortly after the 2008 Presidential Election, the novel is structured into four strands that follow the characters of Mary Ann, the straight heroine of the original novel and TV series; Ben, the husband of Mary Ann's old friend (and fellow TotC alumnus) Mouse; Jake, an employee of Mouse and housemate of TotC's now-elderly Mrs. Madrigal, who is preparing to be transgendered to a man; and Shawna, Mary Ann's long-abandoned step-daughter, now a sex-blogger living in San Francisco.

Fleeing her disintegrating marriage, Mary Ann has returned to San Francisco to visit Mouse, her oldest friend, to whom she reveals a recent diagnosis of uterine cancer. Rallying to her aid, Mouse fixes her up with a local lesbian surgeon, while Ben acquaints her with facebook. Unexpectedly taking a shine to it, Mary Ann is pleased to encounter both old friends and fans of her east coast TV work. However, one fan, Fogbound One, appears to know secrets from her past that she had long buried. Distracted by Mouse and Ben, and by her treatment, Mary Ann ignores this interloper, but his interest in her provokes some climactic revelations.

In parallel, Ben is gradually adjusting to married life with Mouse, against the backdrop of California's striking down of gay marriage. Though initially jealous of the close relationship between Mouse and Mary Ann, he gradually warms to her and her dramatics. His regular outings with his dog also introduce him to an old loner, Cliff, with whom he gradually forges a bond, but whose personal tragedies trigger a rapid distancing by Ben.

Meanwhile, Jake is awaiting the completion of his gender-reassignment surgery, and has begun living as a man. Meeting Jonah, an attractive Mormon missionary in town to support Prop. 8, Jake finds his interest piqued even as he is repelled by Jonah's religious homophobia. But despite this faith, the interest is not one way, and Jonah find himself attracted to Jake, though he remains deeply conflicted about his nature.

Also not long back in San Francisco, Shawna is casting around for material for her blog, and debating whether she should use her own experiences with her performance artist boyfriend, Otto. Accidentally crossing paths with a homeless woman, Shawna is intrigued by her grim humour but hopeless situation. Determined to find out more about her life, Shawna co-opts the assistance of Otto and tracks the woman, Leia, to a destitute and dangerous part of town. But Leia's lifestyle has fatally wounded her and Shawna finds herself watching on in the last chapter of the homeless woman's life. Still curious about how Leia's life turned this way, she investigates with what little information Leia was able to pass on before dying. This turns up an estranged husband and, ultimately, a hidden past that connects back to Mary Ann.

It's an interesting novel to rate, this one. I certainly enjoyed it, though largely because it was a like meeting up with an old friend. A lot of time has elapsed since the events of TofC, and the overlapping characters have been pretty busy. Mary Ann, for instance, seems to have had a number of marriages, though all child-less, as well as a career on television. So the novel served, to me at least, as a pleasurable catch-up for the events of the intervening 6 novels. I actually quite enjoyed hearing about what Mary Ann and Mouse had been doing, especially in such a condensed form.

In fact, that the novel includes so much history almost suggests that Maupin intends the novel to appeal to first-time visitors to Barbary Lane (or to delinquent visitors like myself who've been out of contact for decades). However, to anyone who's never seen the TV series, or who has never read any of the other novels, this book is liable to be an extremely dull read. Or possibly even an infuriating one, especially when the novel's climax stretches back to the events of the first novel. For me, this wasn't a problem at all, since my experience of the series is just that first book (and then only the TV version). But new readers are not likely to appreciate snatching only brief mentions of characters and events that they know nothing about but which are necessary to fully enjoy the novel.

There's also no escaping the fact that the novel is a pretty feather-light read. Though it has its dark moments, it's essentially a series of rather comfortable, and sometimes comforting, tales about old friends, juggling relationships and, well, changing gender. Which, as I've said already, I enjoyed. But it isn't anywhere near as ground-breaking as Maupin's first visit to Barbary Lane, which opened a window into the gay scene for those outside it (at least, it did for me). Of course, I don't suppose that it's meant to be, but the cultural significance of the first book does cast something of a long shadow.

Still, if nothing else, it's provided a spur to look back to the earlier book. I don't think I'm done with Mary Ann just yet.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Labile stamina

One of the victims of my twisted ankle has been my cycling. Bar a stint living in Leamington Spa at the end of my studies there (it was a little too far on scary roads), I've pretty much been cycling every weekday since I first moved to U. Warwick in autumn 1993. So my eight week lay-up has been, by far, the (second) longest stint I've been off the saddle. Anyway, today I got back on to test out my ankle (after a good 15 minutes spent de-rusting my chain). The good news is that it looks like cycling doesn't put much strain on my busted ligaments. The bad news is that my break from two wheels has sapped my stamina back to featherweight class. I suspect I'm going to have to take it easy getting back to self-powered commuting. C's not off taxi duty just yet.

Three biologists go into a bar ...

Up in London yesterday to catch up with two friends from my U. Warwick days, MvB and AL. It's been quite a long time since any of us met up, but even so it was almost like no time had passed at all. It was particularly nice to be in the company of biologists again - though there are plenty at NOC, I've walled myself into the modellers compound. Anyway, hopefully our next meeting won't be as far into the future as our last one was in the past.


There are a few more photos over at Flick - including one or two where AL is able to get a grip on his blinking reflex.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Alternative "medicine"

After having read about the government's plan to regulate herbal medicine, with its side-lining of the idea that, perhaps, evidence matters, I came across this news item on the website of the lobbying organisation that "achieved" this triumph. Unable to stand the crowing there, I fired off a comment, which is now awaiting moderation. I suspect that it won't be getting published, but I'm just livid at how vested interests, via their mercenary lobbyists, can make a nonsense of evidence-based considerations.

Nice one Cogitamus. Scoring a goal against rational, evidence-based health care policy is quite a result. You must be really proud to be servicing value-free clients such as the EHTPA against the best interests of the general public. It’s reassuring to know that corporate ethical standards (which I note you make a point of emphasising) having nothing to do with corresponding human ethical standards. What next? I’m sure that, say, the arms industry could really benefit from slackening the restrictions that prevent it from supplying whomever it wants. Best wishes for your next triumph over sanity.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

American Idol

February 6th 2011 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, US President from 1981 to 1989. While this was unsurprisingly marked in the US, it passed with only a few mentions in the UK, one of which was the BBC4 broadcast of American Idol - Ronald Reagan. Part of the excellent Storyville series, the biographical documentary covered Reagan's life from inauspicious beginnings in Illinois, through his acting career to his pivotal time with General Electric, then onto his more well-known role as "Nemesis to Communism".

Having grown up during his presidency, I've always been interested in him, particularly given the buffing his image has received from the New Right in the two decades since he left the Oval Office. So much of the documentary didn't come as news to me: his cooperation with HUAC; his catastrophic voodoo economics; his covert support of both Iranian theocracy and murderous right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.

What I did learn was that my antipathy towards Reagan, while based in part on his record, is fuelled more by my contempt for the myth-makers who now elevate him to the status of some sort of free market saint. They aren't interested at all in what he actually did while in office, or even what sort of man he was, but just in amplifying those aspects of his rhetoric that suits their self-serving agenda. More, they appear entirely uninterested in actual facts on issues of politics and economics.

A few parts of the documentary particularly stood out. First, was the frequent appearance of Reagan's son, Ron Reagan, whose description of his father perfectly balanced love and a degree of awe with a recognition that Reagan's record as President contains uncomfortable elements, even for his family. The contrast with Reagan's adopted son, Michael Reagan, who sadly exemplifies the worst excesses of the myth-making right, could not have been greater.

Another revealing interviewee was a former soldier, who had served during the period Reagan was in office, and who appeared throughout the documentary solidly supporting the myth. But in his final appearance, he powerfully turned on the myth, and recognised that Reagan's anti-regulation, anti-government, pro-business agenda had ushered in an era grounded in the worst sort of live-today materialism that has nothing to do with the freedom or values in Reagan's own rhetoric. Presumably thinking of Gulf Wars I and II, he also snapped at Reagan's bombastic 1980 election campaign, grounded in the lie that, contrary to the remonstrations of the then-sinking Carter presidency, there was no limit to oil in the world.

Anyway, great stuff. And all the better for not being a hatchet job.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes

We finally caught up with last year's winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes. It's part murder mystery, part political intrigue, part love story and part meditation on memory. But it was certainly wholly enjoyable. And considering this diverse range of composite layers, not to mention its flitting between the 1970s and the "present day", it's put together brilliantly. The two lead actors really help, juggling both the past and (tentative) present relationships of their characters. Highly recommended.

One aspect I thought might feature a little more prominently was Argentina's descent into the Dirty War that began in late 1970s. While this is still pivotal to the plot, indeed it largely divides the past and present sections, it wasn't dwelt on as much as I'd thought it would be. Still, with such a tight and multi-faceted film, it would probably have been a mistake to get too heavy on this part of Argentina's history.

Anyway, I'll be surprised if a US remake doesn't appear at some point. Given political sensitivities, it'll be interesting to see if it retains the setting ...

Friday, 11 February 2011

What I hate about modelling

One of the things that I hate most about being an ecosystem modeller is how easy it is to be hamstrung by a single (and usually simple) coding error in a model equation. Worse, as long as they don't immediately produce NaNs, such errors can lie undetected for months or years until, upon discovery, they invalidate a vast body of simulation output that has been generated using them. A recent schoolboy error, which I'm far too embarrassed to describe here and which wasn't even in an equation, cost me a big chunk of simulation time, and no shortage of embarrassment when I had to 'fess up to it.

One of the worst parts of such errors is finding them. It usually starts off with either an anomaly in model output or, as in the case I'm coming to, an attempt to disentangle a model equation during a write-up. After a few minutes of attempted bughunting, which usually becomes increasingly desperate as the sums continue not to add up, a cold dread begins to seep into my mind, followed by a sinking collapse into depression (plus optional banging of the head on a wall). Could I really have been so stupid? Just how much work is hanging on this mistake? Did I publish anything using this model version?

Sometimes, and this is what's just happened to me, after reaching this nadir, and contemplating leaving my office by the window because of the vast, crushing shame that's just fallen onto me, the penny drops, and what's hitherto been a fatal error upon which months of work have just been dashed turns out to be nothing of the sort. A quick correction later, and the seeming error turns out to instead have been some good, solid programming that I did months/years ago. But the gushing relief that comes in these latter cases (which, to be fair, are the majority for me) doesn't offset the preceding darkness.

And that's one of the things I hate most about modelling. Those terrible moments when it looks like a vast tranche of my work has just slipped off down the pan. To get all melodramatic about it: it's the living on a knife edge between just-about-OK, and catastrophic-disaster-cum-fiasco that I can't stand.

Sinking flux model

Today's cold sweat was inspired by my attempt to draw this diagram to illustrate a paper. Try as I might, I just couldn't get my equations to stack up. Cue questions about whether all my simulations were wrong ...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Deflating sequel

Back to science fiction sequel land with Paul McAuley's Gardens of the Sun, follow-up to his 2008 novel The Quiet War. I reviewed the latter somewhat coolly last year, and expressed the hope that McAuley's seeming parable about Gulf War II picked up somewhat in its sequel.

The Quiet War is over. Bar a handful of refugees bound for distant planets and moons, the Three Powers Alliance (TPA) from Earth has bested the Outers and captured their colonies in the Jupiter and Saturn systems. Viewing the Outers as heretical experiments in genetics, the TPA is quick to turn their cities into prison camps, and brutal in its response to the resulting civil disobedience. But creaming off the best of Outer technology leads to squabbles both between the TPA partners and within the elites who run its component parts, most notably within the Gaia-worshipping nation of Greater Brazil. For too long they have held Earth in a tight grasp, and things have not changed or gotten easier after the conquering of the Outers, both of which serve to foment a grassroots rebellion. Furthermore, out in the distant reaches of the solar system there are remaining Free Outers, including in their number the Ghosts, a fanatical sect who believe a victory over the Earth has been foretold in messages sent from the future by their leader. Their beliefs, in conjunction with the unrest on Earth, are about to turn the tide of the war, and threaten to make it anything but quiet.

Much as with the earlier volume, the novel is structured around the "adventures" of five principal characters spread among the various competing factions. The geneticist Sri Hong-Owen ceases her pursuit of her Outer rival, Avernus, and turns instead to investigating the latter's work in the now subjugated Outer colonies, a change that leads her in utterly unexpected directions. Dave #8, one of Hong-Owen's genetically engineered charges who fell in love with an Outer and ultimately went native during the Quiet War, continues his search for his lost love, but is mindful at every turn that his former superiors are still on the lookout for him. Macy Minnot, a former ecosystem engineer and now traitor to Earth, is on the run with her Outer partner Newt in the far reaches of the solar system, but her past connection to Earth keeps her fellow refugees mistrustful, even when they rely on her to intercede on their behalf. Loc Ifrahim, though an agent of the victorious Earth powers, finds himself side-lined as internecine disputes shift power in the conquered colonies, and while he plots a resplendent future on Earth with his partner, Captain Neves, begins to have a change of heart about the justness of his employer's cause. Finally, after a near-fatal incident during the Quiet War, combat pilot Cash Baker returns to Earth initially to a hero's welcome, but he too becomes a victim of squabbles in the ruling elite, and while down on his luck turns to the black market for work, a move which brings him to the attention of those interested in overthrowing the authorities and in the market for military pilots.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I have to come down against this novel. Certainly, it's more at the "disappointing" end of the spectrum rather than the "fiasco" end (unlike, for example, a certain disaster novel I recently endured), but that's hardly a ringing endorsement. In large part, I think its undoing stems from its disengagement with current events. The Quiet War, though not exactly flawless, could at least be read as a thinly disguised parable about Gulf War II. Here, McAuley hasn't got an easy subtext underpinning him. The response of the Outers to occupation has little in common with the situation in Iraq, or elsewhere for that matter, so the novel just flounders about a bit. But it also doesn't help that there's no-one to really get behind in it. The most sympathetic, Macy, is an outsider in her new world, so feels perpetually downtrodden rather than someone that the reader is drawn to championing. And the shifting allegiances of the other characters, all previously on the side of the TPA, removes the possibility of any gratifying change of fortune for them. This doesn't make for a bad novel, but just one that's hard to engage with, and a relief to get through.

Furthermore, for much of the novel I was convinced that it was the second in a trilogy, since the pacing seemed to suggest there was a whole lot more to happen. But, no, the pacing was just poor. In fact, the rather swift toppling of Greater Brazil's leadership, which largely seems to happen off the page, came as a disappointing surprise. Not least because it skipped over any satisfying comeuppances for various evil elites. Similarly, the whole closing saga with the spectre of a Ghost counterattack appears far too near the end of the novel for it to be in the least suspenseful. It's clear by then that no further sequel is forthcoming, so the outcome is never seriously in doubt (even if the actual events come as something of a surprise).

Another aspect of the novel that's more than a little infuriating is its last-act interest in (serious) post-humanity. Two strands of the story end this way, and in both cases do so in what should be fairly spectacular fashion, particularly so Sri Hong-Owen's transformation. But since both come out of the blue with literally no build-up, it feels like a late addition of spice that McAuley has thrown in to celebrate finishing the novel. Sri Hong-Owen does, to be fair, disappear for a long stretch, which gets the reader suspicious, but her big reveal is completely against the run of play, so it comes off as false. Which is a shame, since McAuley has done good work with these topics before, particularly in his first-rate short story Gene Wars. That skilfully squeezes a much more imaginative tale out of prose a fraction of the length.

All that said, unlike Baxter, I shan't be giving up on McAuley. Gardens of the Sun was more of a trudge than I'd hoped, but it's no travesty. For all of my complaints about pacing and subtext, it's still a fairly solid yarn, just a bit of a dull one. And McAuley's back-catalogue includes too many novels I've enjoyed for me not to forgive him a damp squib.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Meaningless statistic update: my Flickr account has (after less than 6 months) incremented a further 10K hits to reach 30K ...

Thirty Thousand (2011-02-07 10.20)

However, during the intervening period, this benchmark photograph (by a dear friend) has, on its own, incremented almost 5K.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Hold Steady

04-02-11_2041 Out on Friday to the students union to see The Hold Steady, a US band much favoured by my co-attendee, JA. Although my iPod actually already holds some of their work (courtesy of a transfusion in 2010 from JA), I went in not knowing a single one of their songs. Partly because I'd just not gotten around to listening, but also because I was curious about what it would be like to attend the concert of a group whose canon I knew diddly squat about.

The most overwhelming impression of the band was: "loud". Even today, I've still got a rather obvious ringing in my ears. I had thought the support act, Wintersleep, were cranked up a little high, but The Hold Steady clarified exactly where 11 was on the sound system. But, permanent hearing damage aside, it was pleasurably satisfying to soak up music that you could both hear and feel.

04-02-11_2224 As for the music itself, well, it was good, boisterous rock from both the main act and the support. The elevated sound level didn't, I think, let it shine to the best degree, but I got the idea. In fact, the band's most obvious asset, its lead singer, did get a bit short-changed by the volume. He was clearly the focus on the stage, but his singing did get reduced to a few obviously enunciated catchwords plus choruses. Which, as I now understand from the AV Club, is a bit of a pity as he can definitely write, even if there was something of a hint of the messianic in the lead's on-stage miming.

Anyway, did the evening convince me to finally track down the band on my iPod? Definitely. I might just wait until the buzzing stops.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

No need to worry?

Yesterday's Friday Seminar on ocean acidification had a very interesting "sting" in its tail about the anthropogenic emissions scenarios that we all use, and fear. The speaker, the great Andy Ridgwell from Bristol, brought in some economics work that's been done on actual patterns of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Though this is entirely empirical, and doesn't shed much light on underlying causes, it suggests that, although there are large reserves of fossil fuels that could be used to kick us far into a warmed and acidified future, we won't use them. Economic factors will kick in long before then to make all of the alternatives more attractive. The model, which looked like it fit the data pretty well, suggested that the actual amount of fossil fuel consumed would be towards the lower end of the scenarios (or even below). And that's even without factoring in the direct actions (low/no population growth; switch to renewables/nuclear) that the lower scenarios envisage (or, at least, not doing so explicitly). The result of such a scenario, while still worrying from a climate perspective, would be far less so from an acidification perspective. So, very interesting. And, as Andy himself pointed out, the sort of news that liable to be picked up and distorted by so-called "climate skeptics" in short order.

The thing I drew from it was that I (and, presumably, much of the rest of the scientific community) unthinkingly go along with the assumption that we'll continue to consume fossil fuels so long as there are some. I guess I have a toy model of humanity in my mind which just malevolently keeps on using damaging fuels regardless of the consequences. In my defence, I read the evidence of human "progress" as supportive of my view, but I think that I'm perhaps being a little inflexible and unkind in my mental caricature of humanity. I guess that stems from my deep pessimism about civilisation's relationship with the Earth. Even, I fear, if we save ourselves, we'll doubtless have goose-stepped all over the rest of the planet's biota to do so. Anyway, it was a strange moment sitting in the seminar to think that perhaps, just perhaps, the scenarios which we've been taking as gospel are mistaken about just how much we'll pay at the pump. It was liberating, but alarming - in a climate-skeptics-will-just-love-misrepresenting-this way.

Of course, the model Andy used is only empirical (which he duly noted), and may fail to pan out in the future. Especially if there's more resistance to, or problems with, energy alternatives. Which, unless we get fusion going on a commercial basis soon-ish, might well be the case. Regardless of the cost, we'll use fossil fuels if nothing else is around to fill the gap in our energy-hungry civilisation. Further, as a questioner pointed out afterwards, the model ignores "unforeseen consequences", such as natural sinks for carbon dioxide suddenly becoming sinks under climate change. Those might just come back to bite us even if we do (grudgingly) switch away from fossil fuel.

Still, it's the first seminar in a while that's made me think (oh, and blog).

Thursday, 3 February 2011

A new toy, part 3

More cactus action ...


Another (less new) toy

Though unmentioned here so far, another new toy that the joint we have recently acquired (a mutual Christmas present) is a shiny iPad. We've had it for more than two months now, so how's it bearing up?

The best thing about it from my perspective is that it makes checking e-mail and web surfing completely effortless. You pick it up, turn it on, and it's ready to go. The alternative is, or was, to fire up my laptop, which took an ungodly minute or two to become usable. And even then my laptop's relationship with wifi left something to be desired. But being able to practically immediately pick up a computer and do something with it is a major coup. Admittedly, this stems from the iPad never seeming to quite be "off", but it seems to consume very little battery power while "sleeping" (or, perhaps, "resting").

It practically goes without saying that the iPad is also a plain joy to use. Much as with the iPhone (and probably other smartphones for all I know), there's something immediately gratifying about how tactile its interface is. It's not simply being able to use touch, it's more that Apple have made the interface respond sensibly to the sorts of instinctive gestures you'd expect to be able to use. So while computer interfaces have historically been pretty obtuse at times, the iPad can be picked up and used successfully from the get-go. This is helped by the interface's "physics" which mean that items appear to have momentum and experience friction. Admittedly (again), the superiority of the interface to conventional computers stems in large part from the fact that the iPad is a simplified computer that can't do as much as a desktop - it's just been very selective in the tasks that it takes onboard.

As for problems, we've yet to experience anything significant. It mishandles attachments in e-mails, at one stage forcing us to delete an e-mail account then reinstate it, but since we've not used it for this sort of e-mailing, this isn't a biggie. It's also crashed on us once, and that flummoxed me at first, but I just used a trick I've been told about iPods (hold two buttons at once for 10+ seconds) and was able to bring it back to life. On this latter point, one thing I'm not sure about is how the iPad juggles multiple open apps. It seems to be able to do this fine, so switching to and from web and e-mail has no memory loss issues, but I presume if I kept opening an shutting apps it might have to stop remembering things after a while. I guess I've just not opened enough apps yet.

As for said apps, I don't think we've made the most of these yet (in spite of a giftcard to buy some for Christmas). We've installed a fair few free ones that do common tasks we'd like, but we've found quite a few of these to be pretty rubbish, and haven't investigated much further. For example, the Amazon one seems to be US-centred, the Rightmove one is considerably less functional than the website, and the ArsTechnica one seems to offer out of date material. More successful are the eBay, Pulse and Friendly apps, though even they aren't completely ideal and often have us back on websites the usual way. There are also gaps in the app market, with nothing useful for Blogger or Flickr - at least nothing free!

But, overall, it's a great little device. Given the price tag, it's still a difficult one to recommend, especially if you've already got a desktop or laptop. It doesn't do any more than they do, and comes at a fair chunk of the price of one of them. But what it does do is make it all more effortless, and makes picking up a computer for a minute to do something simple vastly more painless than a more conventional machine. So two thumbs up, but think about your wallet first.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A new toy, part 2

As promised previously, I've been playing some more with my new toy, and have knocked up some new photographs using it ...


While I like that I've been able to snap with it, I still think that I'm well off making the most of it. For instance, most of the photographs I've taken so far are rather pedestrian straight-on shots, which doesn't take best advantage of the microscope's unusual optics and often misses out on more interesting angles that subjects present.

Additionally, there are some hurdles I've yet to work around. First, while the stand that holds the microscope is a little unwieldy, it's still a lot better than trying to get a shot while holding it. Given the scale of the items being photographed, the slightest of slight wobbles makes a steady image impossible. Second, the microscope's internal light source is a little harsh, and can also manifest itself when reflective subjects are photographed. The Windows hotkey above is an example - you can see the individual LEDs reflected around the logo's rim.

So I've still very much got to play about with the scope to see what's possible with it. What I really need to do is install it onto my laptop, so I can use it to take exterior shots - so far I've only snapped off subjects that are within, or can be moved within, range of our home PC.

Changing subject, one of my recent subjects was the flower on one of our orchids. As well as taking a more distant shot, I also went in for a close-up of the flower's interior. When composing a caption for the photograph, and mindful of its depiction of the business end of plant reproduction, I went for "Pornography for plants". Faintly witty, I thought. Anyway, since posting, it's shot up the popularity stakes of my Flickr photographs (40 hits already [*]), and has far outstripped any of its fellow microscope images. It could be because it's such an odd image, and so brightly coloured (no doctoring - honest), but I reckon instead that Flickr's users are searching more (or is it less?) eclectically. Ho-hum.

[*] Hey - that's a lot for me Graham.